2018 Nissan Leaf First Drive

After an agonizing trickle of details and teasers, Nissan has finally pulled the wraps off the next generation of the world’s best-selling EV nameplate, the Leaf. But a lot has changed since the original launched in 2010. With the impressive range figures of the Tesla Model 3 and Chevy Bolt, the 2018 Nissan Leaf has got to be good. As we drove it at Nissan’s Tochigi proving grounds, zipping quietly through corners while nestled in the attractive, tech-laden interior, we realized we were piloting a successful evolution — and a milestone defining the second generation of the modern electric car.

THE LOOK

The new Leaf is far better looking than the car it replaces. It’s sleeker, with a more planted stance, futuristic but more mainstream. Its floating roof projects lightness, and its swept-back shape gives it a sense of motion. The new Leaf is about 0.4 inch lower in overall height, 0.8 inch wider and 1.2 inches longer, but it appears even lower, wider and longer than that. Ground clearance is unchanged. Nissan’s designers told us they would have liked to have lowered the car and put bigger wheels on it, but they made all the spatial changes they could without making it too heavy or costly. Essentially, the new Nissan Leaf looks more like a car we’d aspire to get our hands on, electric powertrain or not.

We found the interior to be quite comfortable and more premium than we expected. The cars we sampled had high-quality materials such as perforated leather seats with microfiber inserts and blue accent stitching. The sense of width played nicely in the cabin, and the front seats felt spacious for such a small vehicle. Even the rear seats were comfortable, with a good amount of legroom for a 6-foot-tall passenger behind a similarly sized driver. The floor felt high, though, in the back seat, and the ceiling was slung low overhead. Still, we wouldn’t feel guilty putting two adults or three children back there for a couple of hours.

THE DRIVE

Our actual drive time in the new Nissan Leaf for this first sampling took place entirely within the automaker’s Tochigi proving grounds, in a preproduction vehicle built to Japanese specifications. It began with demonstrations of the ProPilot Park and ProPilot Assist systems, an experience deserving of its own, separate review, which you can read here. According to Nissan, the cars bound for Japan have lighter steering and softer suspension tuning than the vehicles that will be sold in North America. We’ve got another drive of the U.S. spec car coming soon, so stay tuned for more on that.

If you haven’t driven an EV before, one could forgive you for thinking the Leaf an oddity, especially visually, but this generation changes all of that the first time one sees it in the flesh. For a large number of drivers — especially for EV veterans — the 2018 Nissan Leaf checks all the important boxes and ignores the unnecessary (and expensive) ones. Considering the success of its imperfect predecessor, and the improvements made in the new Leaf, this one is poised for success.